Airstream in Yellowstone

What to Expect in the National Parks

This is the second article in our ongoing series about visiting America’s National Parks with an Airstream. Read Part 1, “National Parks for Airstreamers”, here.

A big part of the fascination of National Parks comes from their incredible diversity. Because they were intended to preserve the best of America’s natural, cultural, and historical assets, the parks can’t help being loaded with superlatives: biggest, deepest, hottest, wettest … and much more.

Death ValleyFor example, we all know that Death Valley National Park in California is the lowest and hottest point in the US. Yellowstone is known for its abundance of geysers and hot springs. These extremes make some of the parks legendary, but when you visit them be prepared to look beyond the popular reputation. This takes more than a quick visit, because you’ll want to browse the Visitor Center, talk to the park Rangers, read the park brochure or newspaper—and if you can—explore some of park on foot.

Grand Canyon is a great example. It’s far more than just a canyon. In fact, the canyon is not the deepest, widest, or longest in the world. Instead, the combination of color, climate, size, and recreational opportunities are what make it gorgeous and popular. It has wonderful architecture along the north and south rims, a population of endangered California Condors (massive birds with wingspans up to 10 feet), epic hiking trails, a scenic train, and a rich heritage of geological and human history.

But day-trippers who are pressed for time sometimes take a glance from the rim and dismiss the canyon as “a big ditch”. Because they don’t have time to really dig into the park’s many assets, they figure the canyon is overrated. This is why camping on site for a few days in your Airstream is the way to go. Having a few days will allow you to unwind, explore without rushing, and dig deeply into the fascinating details.

Grand Canyon

Some national parks are really best seen by campers, because they are remote and it’s a long drive to the hotel. Daytrippers have to spend much of their time driving back and forth, but you can wake up in the park and explore at your leisure over a period of days. A few examples include Canyonlands (UT), Great Sand Dunes (CO), Olympic (WA), Guadalupe (TX), Natural Bridges (UT), Natchez Trace (MS), Navajo (AZ), and Dinosaur (UT/CO).

Exploring National ParksEvery park is different so it’s difficult to generalize about what to expect when you visit in your Airstream. Of course the key element we’re seeking is a campground that is suitable for Airstreams (not just tents). Most of the larger parks will have at least one with water, bathrooms and dump station. Hookups are rare, so it helps to be skilled at boondocking, especially at western desert parks.

If you’re comfortable with that, you’ll want to camp in the park rather than at one of the commercial campgrounds which are usually found just outside the park boundary. Typically the cost for a national park campsite is a mere $10-20, usually less than half the cost of a commercial park site with hookups. Using the national park campground also puts you closer to the things you came to experience, including scenic views, wildlife, and hiking trails—and that saves valuable time.

Inside any park big enough to have a campground you’ll typically find a Visitor Center with a small shop in it. Here you can get information from volunteers or park Rangers, maps, hiking permits (if needed), a National Parks Passport stamp (one unique stamp for every park in the system), books, and souvenirs.

Visitor Center

Larger parks have interpretive exhibits and dioramas in the Visitor Center, and often movie theaters. If you are in a hurry to get out into the park and enjoy the outdoors, plan to come back to roam through the exhibits later. They’re always well worth the time, and you’ll gain a greater appreciation for the park.

The Rangers and volunteers are a huge resource as well. Chatting up one of the staff will often yield insider knowledge about best places to visit at that time. If you have a specialized interest such as birding, photography, hiking, or history, let the staff know and they’ll point you in the right direction.

Most parks have at least a few self-guided tours or hiking trails. If you are physically able, try to hike as much as you can. There are often hidden treasures of the park that can only be discovered on foot.

Many of the western parks have 4×4 or high-clearance roads. If you’ve got a vehicle with high clearance you can usually travel most of the 4×4 roads, allowing access to isolated and fascinating locations that few others will ever see. Check with the Rangers before driving any of these roads, since conditions vary and some roads are impassable at certain times. (We’ll talk more about off-roading and dirt road trips in a future article.)

Larger parks have Ranger-led tours or evening talks/slide shows during peak seasons. Check for the presence of an amphitheater near the campground, or look on the announcement board at the visitor center for information about tours and talks. In my experience, any presentation or tour given by a Ranger is well worth the time—and most of them are free.

National Parks Service Ranger HatsMost national parks that have a Visitor Center will also have a Junior Ranger program. The Junior Ranger badge is aimed primarily at kids but adults can do it as well, and it’s a great way to get to know the park a little better. Ask for the Junior Ranger pamphlet at the desk. (We’ll also discuss the Junior Ranger program in greater detail in a future article.)

There’s one more thing to expect in a national park: a few rules. The National Park Service is very serious about protecting the parks and everything in them (including you!) so be sure you check out the rules regarding pets, artifacts, weapons, and boundaries. Typically you’ll find a full explanation in the park guide that was handed to you when you arrived, or in the Visitor Center.

There’s a lot of emphasis on preserving the parks, so remember that everything is protected by Federal law, even rocks and ants. Remember the credo, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” and you’ll experience the best that America has to offer while leaving it pristine for the next generation.

—By Rich Luhr